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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

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ISBN13: 9780374249397
ISBN10: 0374249393
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Excerpt

Chapter 1

When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event. The premiere of Salome had taken place in Dresden five months earlier, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale—an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.

Giacomo Puccini, the creator of La Bohème and Tosca, made a trip north to hear what “terribly cacophonous thing” his German rival had concocted. Gustav Mahler, the director of the Vienna Opera, attended with his wife, the beautiful and controversial Alma. The bold young composer Arnold Schoenberg arrived from Vienna with his brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky and no fewer than six of his pupils. One of them, Alban Berg, traveled with an older friend, who later recalled the “feverish impatience and boundless excitement” that all felt as the evening approached. The widow of Johann Strauss II, composer of On the Beautiful Blue Danube, represented old Vienna.

Ordinary music enthusiasts filled out the crowd—“young people from Vienna, with only the vocal score as hand luggage,” Richard Strauss noted. Among them may have been the seventeen-year-old Adolf Hitler, who had just seen Mahler conduct Richard Wagners Tristan und Isolde in Vienna. Hitler later told Strausss son that he had borrowed money from relatives to make the trip. There was even a fictional character present—Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Thomas Manns Doctor Faustus, the tale of a composer in league with the devil.

The Graz papers brought news from Croatia, where a Serbo-Croat movement was gaining momentum, and from Russia, where the tsar was locked in conflict with the countrys first parliament. Both stories carried tremors of future chaos—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Russian Revolution of 1917. For the moment, though, Europe maintained the facade of civilization. The British war minister, Richard Haldane, was quoted as saying that he loved German literature and enjoyed reciting passages from Goethes Faust.

Strauss and Mahler, the titans of Austro-German music, spent the afternoon in the hills above the city, as Alma Mahler recounted in her memoirs. A photographer captured the composers outside the opera house, apparently preparing to set out on their expedition—Strauss smiling in a boater hat, Mahler squinting in the sun. The company visited a waterfall and had lunch in an inn, where they sat at a plain wooden table. They must have made a strange pair: Strauss, tall and lanky, with a bulbous forehead, a weak chin, strong but sunken eyes; Mahler, a full head shorter, a muscular hawk of a man. As the sun began to go down, Mahler became nervous about the time and suggested that the party head back to the Hotel Elefant, where they were staying, to prepare for the perfor-mance. “They cant start without me,” Strauss said. “Let em wait.” Mahler replied: “If you wont go, then I will—and conduct in your place.”

Mahler was forty-six, Strauss forty-one. They were in most respects polar opposites. Mahler was a kaleidoscope of moods—childlike, heaven-storming, despotic, despairing. In Vienna, as he strode from his apartment near the Schwarzenbergplatz to the opera house on the Ringstrasse, cabdrivers would whisper to their passengers, “Der Mahler!” Strauss was earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical, a closed book to most observers. The soprano Gemma Bellincioni, who sat next to him at a banquet after the performance in Graz, described him as “a pure kind of German, without poses, without long-winded speeches, little gossip and no inclination to talk about himself and his work, a gaze of steel, an indecipherable expression.” Strauss came from Munich, a backward place in the eyes of sophisticated Viennese such as Gustav and Alma. Alma underlined this impression in her memoir by rendering Strausss dialogue in an exaggerated Bavarian dialect.

Not surprisingly, the relationship between the two composers suffered from frequent misunderstandings. Mahler would recoil from unintended slights; Strauss would puzzle over the sudden silences that ensued. Strauss was still trying to understand his old colleague some four decades later, when he read Almas book and annotated it. “All untrue,” he wrote, next to the description of his behavior in Graz.

“Strauss and I tunnel from opposite sides of the mountain,” Mahler said. “One day we shall meet.” Both saw music as a medium of conflict, a battlefield of extremes. They reveled in the tremendous sounds that a hundred-piece orchestra could make, yet they also released energies of fragmentation and collapse. The heroic narratives of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from Beethovens symphonies to Wagners music dramas, invariably ended with a blaze of transcendence, of spiritual overcoming. Mahler and Strauss told stories of more circuitous shape, often questioning the possibility of a truly happy outcome.

Each made a point of supporting the others music. In 1901, Strauss became president of the Allgemeiner deutscher Musikverein, or All-German Music Association, and his first major act was to program Mahlers Third Symphony for the festival the following year. Mahlers works appeared so often on the associations programs in subsequent seasons that some critics took to calling the organization the Allgemeiner deutscher Mahlerverein. Others dubbed it the Annual German Carnival of Cacophony. Mahler, for his part, marveled at Salome. Strauss had played and sung the score for him the previous year, in a piano shop in Strasbourg, while passersby pressed against the windows trying to overhear. Salome promised to be one of the highlights of Mahlers Vienna tenure, but the censors balked at accepting an opera in which biblical characters perform unspeakable acts. Furious, Mahler began hinting that his days in Vienna were numbered. He wrote to Strauss in March 1906: “You would not believe how vexatious this matter has been for me or (between ourselves) what consequences it may have for me.”

So Salome came to Graz, an elegant city of 150,000 people, capital of the agricultural province of Styria. The Stadt-Theater staged the opera at the suggestion of the critic Ernst Decsey, an associate of Mahlers, who assured the management that it would create a succès de scandale.

“The city was in a state of great excitement,” Decsey wrote in his autobiography, Music Was His Life. “Parties formed and split. Pub philosophers buzzed about what was going on . . . Visitors from the provinces, critics, press people, reporters, and foreigners from Vienna . . . Three more-than-sold-out houses. Porters groaned, and hoteliers reached for the keys to their safes.” The critic fueled the anticipation with a high-flown preview article acclaiming Strausss “tone-color world,” his “polyrhythms and polyphony,” his “breakup of the narrow old tonality,” his “fetish ideal of an Omni-Tonality.”

As dusk fell, Mahler and Strauss finally appeared at the opera house, having rushed back to town in their chauffeur-driven car. The crowd milling around in the lobby had an air of nervous electricity. The orchestra played a fanfare when Strauss walked up to the podium, and the audience applauded stormily. Then silence descended, the clarinet played a softly slithering scale, and the curtain went up.

In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the princess of Judaea dances for her stepfather, Herod, and demands the head of John the Baptist as reward. She had surfaced several times in operatic history, usually with her more scandalous features suppressed. Strausss brazenly modern retelling takes off from Oscar Wildes 1891 play Salomé, in which the princess shamelessly eroticizes the body of John the Baptist and indulges in a touch of necrophilia at the end. When Strauss read Hedwig Lachmanns German translation of Wilde—in which the accent is dropped from Salomés name—he decided to set it to music word for word, instead of employing a verse adaptation. Next to the first line, “How beautiful is the princess Salome tonight,” he made a note to use the key of C-sharp minor. But this would turn out to be a different sort of C-sharp minor from Bachs or Beethovens.

Strauss had a flair for beginnings. In 1896 he created what may be, after the first notes of Beethovens Fifth, the most famous opening flourish in music: the “mountain sunrise” from Thus Spake Zarathustra, deployed to great effect in Stanley Kubricks film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The passage draws its cosmic power from the natural laws of sound. If you pluck a string tuned to a low C, then pluck it again while pinching it in half, the tone rises to the next C above. This is the interval of the octave. Further subdivisions yield intervals of the fifth (C to G), the fourth (G to the next higher C), and the major third (C to E). These are the lower steps of the natural harmonic series, or overtone series, which shimmers like a rainbow from any vibrating string. The same intervals appear at the outset of Zarathustra, and they accumulate into a gleaming C-major chord.

Salome, written nine years after Zarathustra, begins very differently, in a state of volatility and flux. The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, one step narrower than the perfect fifth. (Leonard Bernsteins “Maria” opens with a tritone resolving to a fifth.) This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears; medieval scholars called it diabolus in musica, the musical devil.

In the Salome scale, not just two notes but two key-areas, two opposing harmonic spheres, are juxtaposed. From the start, we are plunged into an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet. Theres a hint of the glitter and swirl of city life: the debonairly gliding clarinet looks forward to the jazzy character who kicks off Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue. The scale might also suggest a meeting of irreconcilable belief systems; after all, Salome takes place at the intersection of Roman, Jewish, and Christian societies. Most acutely, this little run of notes takes us inside the mind of one who is exhibiting all the contradictions of her world.

The first part of Salome focuses on the confrontation between Salome and the prophet Jochanaan: she the symbol of unstable sexuality, he the symbol of ascetic rectitude. She tries to seduce him, he shrinks away and issues a curse, and the orchestra expresses its own fascinated disgust with an interlude in C-sharp minor—in Jochanaans stentorian manner, but in Salomes key.

Then Herod comes onstage. The tetrarch is a picture of modern neurosis, a sensualist with a yearning for the moral life, his music awash in overlapping styles and shifting moods. He comes out on the terrace; looks for the princess; gazes at the moon, which is “reeling through the clouds like a drunken woman”; orders wine, slips in blood, stumbles over the body of a soldier who has committed suicide; feels cold, feels a wind—there is a hallucination of wings beating the air. Its quiet again; then more wind, more visions. The orchestra plays fragments of waltzes, expressionistic clusters of dissonance, impressionistic washes of sound. There is a turbulent episode as five Jews in Herods court dispute the meaning of the Baptists prophecies; two Nazarenes respond with the Christian point of view.

When Herod persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, she does so to the tune of an orchestral interlude that, on first hearing, sounds disappointingly vulgar in its thumping rhythms and pseudo-Oriental exotic color. Mahler, when he heard Salome, thought that his colleague had tossed away what should have been the highlight of the piece. But Strauss almost certainly knew what he was doing: this is the music that Herod likes, and it serves as a kitschy foil for the grisliness to come.

Salome now calls for the prophets head, and Herod, in a sudden religious panic, tries to get her to change her mind. She refuses. The executioner prepares to behead the Baptist in his cistern prison. At this point, the bottom drops out of the music. A toneless bass-drum rumble and strangulated cries in the double basses give way to a huge smear of tone in the full orchestra.

At the climax, the head of John the Baptist lies before Salome on a platter. Having disturbed us with unheard-of dissonances, Strauss now disturbs us with plain chords of necrophiliac bliss. For all the perversity of the material, this is still a love story, and the composer honors his heroines emotions. “The mystery of love,” Salome sings, “is greater than the mystery of death.” Herod is horrified by the spectacle that his own incestuous lust has engendered. “Hide the moon, hide the stars!” he rasps. “Something terrible is going to happen!” He turns his back and walks up the staircase of the palace. The moon, obeying his command, goes behind the clouds. An extraordinary sound emanates from the lower brass and winds: the operas introductory motif is telescoped—with one half-step alteration—into a single glowering chord. Above it, the flutes and clarinets launch into an obsessively elongated trill. Salomes love themes rise up again. At the moment of the kiss, two ordinary chords are mashed together, creating a momentary eight-note dissonance.

The moon comes out again. Herod, at the top of the stairs, turns around, and screams, “Kill that woman!” The orchestra attempts to restore order with an ending in C minor, but succeeds only in adding to the tumult: the horns play fast figures that blur into a howl, the timpani pound away at a four-note chromatic pattern, the woodwinds shriek on high. In effect, the opera ends with eight bars of noise.

The crowd roared its approval—that was the most shocking thing. “Nothing more satanic and artistic has been seen on the German opera stage,” Decsey wrote admiringly. Strauss held court that night at the Hotel Elefant, in a never-to-be-repeated gathering that included Mahler, Puccini, and Schoenberg. When someone declared that hed rather shoot himself than memorize the part of Salome, Strauss answered, “Me, too,” to general amusement. The next day, the composer wrote to his wife, Pauline, who had stayed home in Berlin: “It is raining, and I am sitting on the garden terrace of my hotel, in order to report to you that ‘Salome went well, gigantic success, people applauding for ten minutes until the fire curtain came down, etc., etc.”

Salome went on to be performed in some twenty-five different cities. The triumph was so complete that Strauss could afford to laugh off criticism from Kaiser Wilhelm II. “I am sorry that Strauss composed this Salome,” the Kaiser reportedly said. “Normally Im very keen on him, but this is going to do him a lot of damage.” Strauss would relate this story and add with a flourish: “Thanks to that damage I was able to build my villa in Garmisch!”

On the train back to Vienna, Mahler expressed bewilderment over his colleagues success. He considered Salome a significant and audacious piece—“one of the greatest masterworks of our time,” he later said—and could not understand why the public took an immediate liking to it. Genius and popularity were, he apparently thought, incompatible. Traveling in the same carriage was the Styrian poet and novelist Peter Rosegger. According to Alma, when Mahler voiced his reservations, Rosegger replied that the voice of the people is the voice of God—Vox populi, vox Dei. Mahler asked whether he meant the voice of the people at the present moment or the voice of the people over time. Nobody seemed to know the answer to that question.

The younger musicians from Vienna thrilled to the innovations in Strausss score, but were suspicious of his showmanship. One group, including Alban Berg, met at a restaurant to discuss what they had heard. They might well have used the words that Adrian Leverkühn applies to Strauss in Doctor Faustus: “What a gifted fellow! The happy-go-lucky revolutionary, cocky and conciliatory. Never were the avant-garde and the box office so well acquainted. Shocks and discords aplenty—then he good-naturedly takes it all back and assures the philistines that no harm was intended. But a hit, a definite hit.” As for Adolf Hitler, it is not certain that he was actually there; he may merely have claimed to have attended, for whatever reason. But something about the opera evidently stuck in his memory.

The Austrian premiere of Salome was just one event in a busy season, but, like a flash of lightning, it illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change. Past and future were colliding; centuries were passing in the night. Mahler would die in 1911, seeming to take the Romantic era with him. Puccinis Turandot, unfinished at his death in 1924, would more or less end a glorious Italian operatic history that began in Florence at the end of the sixteenth century. Schoenberg, in 1908 and 1909, would unleash fearsome sounds that placed him forever at odds with the vox populi. Hitler would seize power in 1933 and attempt the annihilation of a people. And Strauss would survive to a surreal old age. “I have actually outlived myself,” he said in 1948. At the time of his birth, Germany was not yet a single nation and Wagner had yet to finish the Ring of the Nibelung. At the time of Strausss death, Germany had been divided into East and West, and American soldiers were whistling “Some Enchanted Evening” in the streets.

 
 
Excerpted from The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. Copyright © 2007 by Alex Ross. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Mitzi, January 18, 2008 (view all comments by Mitzi)
If you are interested in the world of classical music, including those composers not yet dead, then you'll enjoy Mr. Ross' tour de force. Classical music, by the author's definition, did not stop with the death of Beethoven. There are many contemporary/20th Century composers who are creating very listenable music. The problem, according to Ross, is that the very term Classical has frozen the concept in time. This chill has made it difficult if not impossible for contemporary composers to break through into popular consciousness. If you are a fan of mr. Ross' weekly column in the New Yorker, then this is a must read.
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Grady Harp, December 7, 2007 (view all comments by Grady Harp)
A Richly Informative, Engrossing Examination of Twentieth Century Music

Alex Ross has the ability and the resources to write about the music of the 20th Century and to establish himself as the creator of the definitive volume with the publication of THE REST IS NOISE: LISTENING TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. His depth of knowledge is matched only by his ability to communicate with a writing style that places him in the echelon of our finest biographers. This book is indeed a comprehensive study of the music created in the 20th Century, but it is also a survey of all of the arts and social changes, effects of wars, industrialization, and quirks and idiosyncrasies that surfaced in that recently ended period of history: Ross may call this 'listening' to the 20th century, but is also visualizing and feeling the changes of that fascinating period.

Ross opens his survey with a detailed description of the premiere of Richard Strauss' opera SALOME and in doing so he references all of those in attendance (from Mahler to Schoenberg, the last of the great Romantics to the leader of the Modernist innovators) and focuses not only on the chances Strauss took using a libidinous libretto by the infamous Oscar Wilde to the astringent dissonances that surface in this tale of evil and necrophilia. The ballast of that evening is then followed throughout the book, a means of communicating music theory and execution in a manner that is wildly entertaining while simultaneously informative.

Ross studies the influence of nationalism in music (the German School, the French School, the British and the American Schools) and then interweaves the particular innovations by showing how each school and each composer was influenced by the simultaneous destruction and reconstruction of the world borders resulting form the wars of that century. He dwells on the pacifists (Benjamin Britten et al) and those trapped by authoritarian regimes (Shostakovich et al), following the great moments as well as the dissonant chances that found audience at times far from the nidus of origin. Ross crosses the 'pond' showing how American music nurtured in the European schools ultimately found grounding in a sound peculiar to this country (Ives, Copland, etc) and allows enough insight as to the influence of jazz to finally satisfy the most critical of readers.

Ross, then, accompanies us on the journey from melody to atonality and back, all the while giving us insights into the composers that help us understand the changes in music landscape they induced. The book is long and demanding, but at the same time it is one of the finest 'novels on a music theme' ever written. Highly recommended not only to musicologists, ardent music lovers, and students of the arts, but to the reading public who simply loves history enhanced by brilliant prose. Grady Harp
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andreaburnsworth, October 23, 2007 (view all comments by andreaburnsworth)
Strauss, Stravinsky, Korngold and "What about" Schrecker, Wagner, The Beatles, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Ligeti, Gershwin, Chuck Berry, Brian Eno, David Bowie, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa and so many more composers all influencing, no, all *richocheting* influences back and forth on each other in an uniquely and delightfully, yet plenty scholarly, Alex Rossian romp through the space-time continuum known as 20th century music.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780374249397
Subtitle:
Listening to the Twentieth Century
Author:
Ross, Alex
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Subject:
Modern - 20th Century
Subject:
History & Criticism - General
Subject:
History & Criticism *
Subject:
Music
Subject:
20th century
Subject:
History and criticism
Subject:
Music -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
Subject:
History
Subject:
Criticism
Subject:
Genres & Styles - Classical
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
20071016
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
8 Pages of Black-and-White Illustrations
Pages:
640
Dimensions:
9.00 x 6.00 in

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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century Used Hardcover
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Product details 640 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374249397 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "'Ross, the classical music critic for the New Yorker, leads a whirlwind tour from the Viennese premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome in 1906 to minimalist Steve Reich's downtown Manhattan apartment. The wide-ranging historical material is organized in thematic essays grounded in personalities and places, in a disarmingly comprehensive style reminiscent of historian Otto Friedrich. Thus, composers who led dramatic lives — such as Shostakovich's struggles under the Soviet regime — make for gripping reading, but Ross treats each composer with equal gravitas. The real strength of this study, however, lies in his detailed musical analysis, teasing out — in precise but readily accessible language — the notes that link Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story to Arnold Schoenberg's avant-garde compositions or hint at a connection between Sibelius and John Coltrane. Among the many notable passages, a close reading of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes stands out for its masterful blend of artistic and biographical insight. Readers new to classical music will quickly seek out the recordings Ross recommends, especially the works by less prominent composers, and even avid fans will find themselves hearing familiar favorites with new ears.' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"Review A Day" by , "The problems with this history begin with the title page — with the self-assured title itself, which seems more promotional than informative, and with the subtitle Listening to the Twentieth Century, which grows more shifty the more you think about it. It might mean listening to the characteristic sounds of the twentieth century — the roar of the jet, the song of the cell phone, the ear- and brain-splitting din of carpet bombing — rather than listening to music. Twentieth century music, as Ross has stressed with much vigor, even spleen, is mostly popular, and increasingly international. But a writer whose ambition was 'to talk about classical music as if it were popular music and popular music as if it were classical' talks mostly about Western classical music as if it were classical." (read the entire New Republic review)
"Review" by , "With every page you turn, the story departs further from the old fairy tale of giants bestriding the earth and looks more like the twentieth century we remember, with fallible human beings reacting to, reflecting, and affecting with symbolic sounds a flux of conditions and events created by other fallible human beings. And turn the pages you do. A remarkable achievement."
"Review" by , "A rare and successful weaving together of musical and cultural history, at once sweeping and accessible, written felicitously by a seasoned music critic at home in the history of the last century. An enticing and bold invitation to learn something of the great themes of the past century."
"Review" by , "A must-read for those who have struggled with understanding modern music and a benchmark book that should eventually become a classic history of the 20th century."
"Review" by , "There seems always to have been a 'crisis of modern music,' but by some insane miracle one person finds the way out. The impossibility of it gives me hope. Fast-forwarding through so many music-makers' creative highs and lows in the company of Alex Ross's incredibly nourishing book will rekindle anyone's fire for music."
"Synopsis" by , Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, takes readers from Vienna before the First World War to New York in the 1970s. The result is not so much a history of 20th-century music as it is a history of the 20th century through its music.
"Synopsis" by ,
The scandal over modern music has not died down. While paintings by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, shocking musical works from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring onward still send ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, the influence of modern music can be felt everywhere. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalist music has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Alex Ross, the brilliant music critic for The New Yorker, shines a bright light on this secret world, and shows how it has pervaded every corner of twentieth century life.
 
The Rest Is Noise takes the reader inside the labyrinth of modern sound. It tells of maverick personalities who have resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with the purest beauty or battered them with the purest noise, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art.
 
Ross, in this sweeping and dramatic narrative, takes us from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. In the tradition of Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches and Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, the end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.
"Synopsis" by ,
The scandal over modern music has not died down. While paintings by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, shocking musical works from Stravinskys Rite of Spring onward still send ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, the influence of modern music can be felt everywhere. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalist music has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Alex Ross, the brilliant music critic for The New Yorker, shines a bright light on this secret world, and shows how it has pervaded every corner of twentieth century life.
 
The Rest Is Noise takes the reader inside the labyrinth of modern sound. It tells of maverick personalities who have resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with the purest beauty or battered them with the purest noise, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art.
 
Ross, in this sweeping and dramatic narrative, takes us from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitlers Germany and Stalins Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. In the tradition of Simon Schamas The Embarrassment of Riches and Louis Menands The Metaphysical Club, the end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.
Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, is the recipient of numerous awards for his work, including two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for music criticism, a Holtzbrinck Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, a Fleck Fellowship from the Banff Centre, and a Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center for significant contributions to the field of contemporary music.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
A Pulitzer Prize Finalist
One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
A Time Magazine Best Book of the Year
An Economist Book of the Year
A Newsweek Favorite Book of the Year
A New York Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year
A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the Year

A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year

Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction
 
The Rest Is Noise shows the origin and enduring influence of modern sound on twentieth century life. It tells of maverick personalities who have resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with the purest beauty or battered them with the purest noise, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art.
 
Ross takes us from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitlers Germany and Stalins Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. He follows the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. In the tradition of Simon Schamas The Embarrassment of Riches and Louis Menands The Metaphysical Club, the end result is a history of the twentieth century through its music.
The Rest Is Noise is a work of immense scope and ambition. The idea is not simply to conduct a survey of 20th-century classical composition but to come up with a history of that century as refracted through its music . . . With its key figures reappearing like motifs in a symphony, The Rest Is Noise is a considerable feat of orchestration and arrangement . . . a great achievement. Rilke once wrote of how he learned to stand ‘more seeingly in front of certain paintings. Ross enables us to listen more hearingly.”—Geoff Dyer, The New York Times
The Rest Is Noise is a work of immense scope and ambition. The idea is not simply to conduct a survey of 20th-century classical composition but to come up with a history of that century as refracted through its music . . . With its key figures reappearing like motifs in a symphony, The Rest Is Noise is a considerable feat of orchestration and arrangement . . . a great achievement. Rilke once wrote of how he learned to stand ‘more seeingly in front of certain paintings. Ross enables us to listen more hearingly.”—Geoff Dyer, The New York Times

“Impressively omnivorous . . . The critic can be a maestro with his turns of phrase.”—James Sullivan, The Boston Globe

"It would be hard to imagine a better guide to the maelstrom of recent music than Mr. Ross, who worked on this book for a decade. He has an almost uncanny gift for putting music into words. No other critic writing in English can so effectively explain why you like a piece, or beguile you to reconsider it, or prompt you to hurry online and buy a recording."—The Economist

"[Ross] states that his subtitle is meant literally: 'this is the twentieth century heard through its music.' He informs the reader that the book is the result of fifteen years of work as a music critic. He also occasionally reiterates the purpose of the book as the text unfolds, as, for example, then he writes that the book illuminates 'the cultural predicament of the composer in the twentieth century.' These interjections make the book an excellent lesson and a wonderful ride . . . Ross divides the twentieth century into three parts . . . He uses the two world wars as major points of demarcation after writing about Vienna (prior to World War I), then Hitler and Stalin, then New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and music in other places thereafter . . . There is a large section of 'Notes' at the end of the book, complete with 'Abbreviations Used' to assist the reader . . . Names of musical organizations, such as the Allgemeiner deutscher Musikverein, are given with their English translations in parentheses to make things easier for the general reader to follow (All-German Music Association). Ross also describes individual compositions in ways that beckon the reader to listen to the musical composition itself—this provides wonderful encouragement to readers who might not otherwise wish to go that far. Furthermore, Ross refers the reader to the most comprehensive biographies on major composers . . . These referrals often occur in sections where Ross discusses a major composers work in depth. Rosss prose is often quite elegant. He enjoys the use of metaphor and, at times, his prose is as enjoyable to listen to as it is to read . . . Ross succeeds in making all of his historical narratives comprehensible to the lay reader as well as to the musician and scholar."—Richard D. Burbank, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Notes

"What powers this amazingly ambitious book and endows it with authority are the author's expansive curiosity and refined openness of mind."—Jamie James, Los Angeles Times

“In his long-awaited first book, The Rest Is Noise, Mr. Ross brings his gift for authoritative enthusiasm to a whole centurys worth of music . . . The result is a massively erudite book that takes care to wear its learning lightly. There are no musical examples in The Rest Is Noise and while Mr. Ross discusses some technical points—the polyrhythms of Stravinsky, the atonality of Schoenberg—it is not necessary to read music to understand his larger themes. Rather than delving deep into a particular composition, like a musicologist, Mr. Ross aims for synthesis, placing each work against the background of its composers life and times. This is music history for readers who know more history than music.”—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

“A volume sharply different in tone from its predecessors—and truer, in my view, to the history of musical modernism . . . Rosss taste is both wide-ranging and receptive, and he never makes the inverse error of assuming that a piece of music is bad merely because it does not sound like Copland or Sibelius, or because it is inconsistent with some other theory of modernism. Insofar as it is possible to do so, he takes music as it comes, and is open to the possibility that any kind—even the atonal kind—can be good. Needless to say, criticism is judgment first and foremost, and part of what makes The Rest Is Noise compelling is the fact that so many of its critical judgments are convincing. Time and again Ross puts his finger unerringly on the pulse of a composer or a specific work, summing it up with the pithy brevity of a first-class journalist. No less striking is his willingness to engage with musical modernism as a part of the larger world of both culture and politics . . . Far more important, in my view, is his overall recognition of the need for contemporary composers to forge stylistic languages (if not a language) that will be accessible to the common listener. This theme, which permeates the pages of The Rest Is Noise, is first sounded in Rosss discussion of the emergence just prior to World War I of the ‘New Viennese School of hermetic modernists led by Arnold Schoenberg . . . In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross shows himself to be a surpassingly eloquent advocate for beauty, by any means necessary.”—Terry Teachout, Commentary

"As absorbing as a novel, as researched and erudite as the most academic tome, argued with the force and strength of an incisive essayist and deep thinker."—Daniel Felsenfeld, Symphony

“Over the past decade, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has established himself as one of our most talented practitioners of the art of the feuilleton, the popular journal piece. He thereby carries on a great tradition of musical writers including Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, and George Bernard Shaw. Now, for the first time, Ross has turned his feuilletonists sensibility to a longer form, the book, and hes made a terrific debut on the big stage. The Rest Is Noise aspires to present ‘the 20th century heard through its music. The book is a series of sweeping set pieces, held together by recurring characters and themes—such as the promiscuous adventures of a few notes from Richard Strausss Salome that were nicked by several other composers. Each chapter tells the story of a period or train of thought and centers on the main composers of the time . . . The book tells a compelling, epic, and entirely human story. Its a scholarly work, with a formidable train of endnotes, but it doesnt read that way. Ross is the rare author who knows his stuff technically but can write about it for everybody. He prose is lucid and engaging, and he has a particular gift for conjuring the sound and effect of music. Often, he manages to be analytical and evocative at the same time . . . A splendid success, thorough and well researched, eminently readable, with a sense of storytelling hard to find in books of music history. Seven years into a new century, its time to start toting up the last one, and Alex Ross has proved himself the right person to provide some perspective on this ‘abundant, benighted era. He consistently connects classical music to the life of creators and of cultures, and so conveys as few writers do the human reality of the music. As Charles Ives put it, ‘Music is life.”—Jan Swafford, Wilson Quarterly

"As quickly becomes clear, Ross's ambition in writing this book is neither to be a completist nor a music appreciator.  He aims to make a coherent narrative of the sprawling, violent, confused and confusing hundred years that propelled world history from cozy excesses of the waning Hapsburg Empire to the techno-revolution of California's Silicon Valley, and from Gustav Mahler to Terry Riley. Along the way, he writes extensively about Hitler, Stalin, FDR, John Kennedy, among other political figures. In the tradition of the cultural historian, Ross includes snippets of history, sociology, biography, philosophy, music theory, and literature . . . Ross gives us the story of 20th-century music—and it is nuanced, complex in its conception, and insightfully original. Moving chronologically and dramatically, the tale is not told but rather is shown through dramatic writing and subtle adjacencies of composers, aesthetic movements, political and social history, and discussions of the music. Few critics can evoke music as compellingly as Ross . . . Another of Ross's gifts as a writer is his ability to explicate musical theory for a literate but non-specialist readership. his cogent description of the whole-tone scale, in a discussion of Debussy's music, and his sensibly simple discussion of Stravinsky's turn from neo-classicism to a new kind of serialism are illuminating for any reader . . . the prose is bedizened with references from a rich variety of sources . . . Dramatic, erudite, and culturally expansive, this book makes fresh connections that narrative the story of 20th-century music in an original way. Ross has written an important work that I—and my students—will pick up, for pleasure, again and again."—Johanna Keller, Syracuse University, Chamber Music magazine

"The Rest Is Noise is one of those captivating cultural histories that manages both extensive sweep and engaging specificity, and it should come with a warning to readers that it might persuade them to quit their jobs in favor of sitting around listening to classical music for a year or two. (If you decide to do so, see Rosss recommended recordings at the back of the book.)"—Radhika Jones, Bookforum

"Alex Ross . . . carries on a great tradition of musical writers including Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, and George Bernard Shaw. Now, for the first time, Ross has turned his feuilletonists sensibility to a longer form, the book, and hes made a terrific debut on the big­stage . . . [The Rest Is Noise] tells a compelling, epic, and entirely human story."—Jan Swafford, The Wilson Quarterly

“As Alex Ross, the classical music critic of The New Yorker, writes in his superb narrative history, The Rest Is Noise, 20th-century music ‘still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences . . . When we encounter the works of György Ligeti, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutoslawski, or Olivier Messiaen—to name just four giants of 20th-cnetury music—we do not, alas, hear great music. We hear only noise. And we are all the poorer for it. How did it all go so very wrong? Why, over the course of the last century, did composers of classical music veer so sharply away from their audiences? Answering these questions, while illuminating the peculiar predicament of the composer in 20th-century culture, is Rosss project in this magisterial book. One could not hope for a better guide; his knowledge of both music and the historical forces that shaped it is deep and nuanced, and his descriptions of specific musical passages are rich and evocative, always employing the right metaphor or turn of phrase.”—Sundip Bose, The American Scholar

"[The Rest Is Noise] demonstrates that it is impossible to understand the larger historical narrative of the last century—or of any century, for that matter—without its music. In other words, Ross's achievement is all the more astounding because it makes music essential to the understanding of history beyond the history of the music itself. And what could matter more than that?"—Jonathan Rabb, Opera News

"With perpetual grace and excitement, Ross reanimates music buried in history and super-obscure record stores, and allows us to feel just how contemporary it can be."—Kevin Berger, Salon

"This elegant book imparts to the music itself—that airy and elusive vibration—what so many critics cannot: three dimensions."—James Marcus, Newsday

"A narrative that embraces the contradictions that characterize so much about the century just past, both in life and in art."—Steve Hicken, The High Hat

"Perhaps the least combative and doctrinaire of American classical-music critics, The New Yorker's Alex Ross turns out to be a brilliant chronicler of the combative, often stiflingly doctrinaire 20th century."—Gavin Borchert, Seattle Weekly

"In The Rest is Noise . . . [Ross] does not simply catalog major figures and artistic highlights, but presents music as an exciting phenomenon vitally related to broader political and social developments . . . [He] grasps music on a profound, composerlike level . . . "—Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"[Ross's] brave goal is nothing less than to bridge the gap between modern composers and listeners. In this task, he is almost phenomenally successful . . . "—Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register

"Early into The Rest Is Noise, I felt like I was reading a book I had been waiting for all my life."—Juliet Waters, C-Ville

"Sweeping yet compulsively readable . . . Lucid technical descriptions illuminate the densest of pieces without dulling their inherently thorny nature."—Hank Shteamer, Time Out New York

"The best book on what music is about—really about —that you or I will ever own."—Alan Rich, LA Weekly

"Superb narrative history . . . magisterial . . . One could not hope for a better guide; [Ross's] knowledge of both music and the historical forces that shaped it is deep and nuanced . . . "—Sudip Bose, The American Scholar

"Ross, the formidable New Yorker music critic, here takes a new approach to 20th-century music. Instead of putting music in the context of 20th-century history, he uses music as the context for history. Major historical events and composers of masterworks become the featured performers. For example, at the end of his discussion of Schoenberg, the author offers a brilliant comparison of the ends of Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Claude Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande as representative depictions of orphans of the fin de siccle. Benjamin Britten gets the most sympathetic treatment of all in Ross's analysis of Peter Grimes. This is scholarship at its best—masterful and approachable. Ross provides new photographs and takes advantage of sources previously untapped for such discussions, e.g., Hitler's speeches and Goebbel's diary. This volume joins such classics as Charlie Rosen's The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation. Extensive bibliographic reference notes serve well."—J. P. Ambrose, emerita, University of Vermont, Choice

"There seems always to have been a ‘crisis of modern music, but by some insane miracle one person finds the way out. The impossibility of it gives me hope. Fast-forwarding through so many music-makers creative highs and lows in the company of Alex Rosss incredibly nourishing book will rekindle anyones fire for music."—Björk

"Alex Ross has produced an introduction to twentieth-century music that is also an absorbing story of personalities and events that is also a history of modern cultural forms and styles that is also a study of social, political, and technological change. The Rest Is Noise is cultural history the way cultural history should be written: a single strong narrative operating on many levels at once."—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club

"You don't have to be an aficionado of modern music to love this book: Alex Rosss extraordinary gifts as a writer, his deep knowledge of music, and his fresh forays into cultural history make The Rest is Noise a complete delight."—Jean Strouse, author of Morgan: American Financier

"The Rest Is Noise reads like a sprawling, intense novel, one of utopian dreams, doom, and consolation, with the most extraordinary cast of characters from music and history alike."—Osvaldo Golijov

"In words that are beautiful, passionate, witty, and utterly compelling, Alex Ross has written a true rarity—a book about music that makes you want to run and listen to every note he talks about."—Emanuel Ax
 
"A rare and successful weaving together of musical and cultural history, at once sweeping and accessible, written felicitously by a seasoned music critic at home in the history of the last century. An enticing and bold invitation to learn something of the great themes of the past century."—Fritz Stern, author of Five Germanys I Have Known

“With every page you turn, the story departs further from the old fairy tale of giants bestriding the earth and looks more like the twentieth century we remember, with fallible human beings reacting to, reflecting, and affecting with symbolic sounds a flux of conditions and events created by other fallible human beings. And turn the pages you do."—Richard Taruskin, author of the Oxford History of Western Music

"The music critic for The New Yorker tells the story of the 20th century through its music. Ross explores 'the cultural predicament of the composer,' tracking how the composer's role has changed from its privileged status in fin-de-siecle Europe, where people like Mahler were celebrated like rock stars, to the composer's current status, compromised by the advent of mass communication, the Great Depression, World War II and America's rise as a global superpower. The author is a careful historian aware of the pitfalls of conventional histories about music since 1900. He calls such histories 'teleological tales,' narratives under the shadow of Arnold Schoenberg—the German composer and champion of atonality—that myopically focus on a particular goal of the study of music history and omit that which doesn't fit into the achievement of that goal. Ross cites Jean Sibelius as an example, devoting an entire chapter to the troubled Finnish composer, whose music was acclaimed in his lifetime but has since been marginalized by historians who qualify him as a 'nationalist' composer, implying his music lacks universal resonance. Ironically, Ross notes, Sibelius has influenced contemporary composers perhaps more than Schoenberg. In choosing to eschew the convenience of these streamlined teleological tales, the author is faced with a complicated matrix of styles, ideas and personalities. But this is no plodding history. With his typically lyrical and attentive style, the author presents a lucid, often gripping story of a complex century. A must-read for those who have struggled with understanding modern music and a benchmark book that should eventually become a classic history of the 20th century."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Ross, the classical music critic for the New Yorker, leads a whirlwind tour from the Viennese premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome in 1906 to minimalist Steve Reich's downtown Manhattan apartment. The wide-ranging historical material is organized in thematic essays grounded in personalities and places, in a disarmingly comprehensive style reminiscent of historian Otto Friedrich. Thus, composers who led dramatic lives—such as Shostakovich's struggles under the Soviet regime—make for gripping reading, but Ross treats each composer with equal gravitas. The real strength of this study, however, lies in his detailed musical analysis, teasing out—in precise but readily accessible language—the notes that link Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story to Arnold Schoenberg's avant-garde compositions or hint at a connection between Sibelius and John Coltrane. Among the many notable passages, a close reading of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes stands out for its masterful blend of artistic and biographical insight. Readers new to classical music will quickly seek out the recordings Ross recommends, especially the works by less prominent composers, and even avid fans will find themselves hearing familiar favorites with new ears."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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